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NUS develops cancer cell culture test kit for personalised, precise cancer therapy

NUS develops cancer cell culture test kit for personalised

The National University
of Singapore (NUS) today announced
that its team of scientists has developed a novel and robust cancer cell-based assay
that could help diagnose cancer, monitor the disease state and customise drug
therapies for individual patients.

According
to the press release, the team of scientists is led by Professor Lim Chwee
Teck, Principal Investigator at the Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) and the
Department of Biomedical Engineering at NUS and NUS PhD graduate Dr Khoo Bee
Luan.

The
NUS-developed microfluidic device, which allows for precise control of fluids
at the submillimetre scale, cultures circulating tumour cells (CTCs) collected
from a patient’s blood, and grows the CTC clusters in its microwells.

The development of
this microfluidic device represents a unique approach of growing personalised
cancer cell clusters and a big step forward in customising cancer therapy for
individual patients.  

Accurate and less invasive cancer screening

CTCs
are cells that break away from the primary tumour and are carried around the
body in the blood circulatory system. They can be obtained from a simple blood
draw, also known as a liquid biopsy. 

Liquid
biopsy, which involves scanning the blood for CTCs, is the new wave in cancer
screening as it is accurate and less invasive. The assessment of CTCs can
provide real-time information about a patient’s cancer and liquid biopsies can
substitute current methods for detection and evaluation of cancer. 

“Imaging
techniques suffer from limitations in resolution that can lead to
false-negative results. Tumour biopsies involve highly invasive procedures that
can cause great discomfort and can also be expensive. Hence, tissue biopsies
are generally used as a diagnostic tool only before and after cancer treatment.
In contrast, the evaluation of CTCs from liquid biopsies can provide regular,
ongoing information for assessing metastatic risk, prognosis and treatment
efficacy,” said Prof Lim, who is also Acting Director of Biomedical Institute
for Global Health Research and Technology (BIGHEART) at NUS.

Assessment
of the CTCs can provide information about a patient’s cancer, rather than
through highly invasive and painful tumour tissue biopsy. As these tumour cell
clusters can closely mimic that of a patient’s tumour, different anticancer
drugs can be tested on the clusters to determine the most effective treatment
for the patient. 

More
effective cancer management

At
the same time, CTCs comprise many sub-populations and are very difficult to
detect. Owing to this rarity, the population of CTCs needs to be expanded
before they can be used for clinical analysis.

Unlike
conventional CTC expansion techniques which take about six months or longer, the
microfluidic device developed by the NUS team promotes CTC cluster formation
within two weeks, with an overall cluster formation success rate of over 50% which
is twice higher than the current methods. Hence, patients could receive
screening results faster. 

Using
the device, doctors could test a range of drugs on the cultured tumour cell
clusters to determine the ones that could effectively attack the cancer cells
of a patient.

The
device also enables two or more drugs, at various concentrations, to be tested
concurrently. This approach will facilitate the development of personalised
therapies, tailored to meet the different needs of each patient.

“Doctors
are increasingly aware that a ‘trial and error’ or ‘one size fits all’ approach
is not suitable for cancer treatment. This practice is inefficient and
frequently results in inappropriate therapy and problematic side effects. In
contrast, personalised treatment, tailored to the individual patient’s cancer
type and progression, has the potential to increase efficacy and decrease
toxicity. A critical advantage of our approach is its potential to predict a
patient’s response to therapeutic treatment by performing tests on their own
cancer cells,” Prof Lim explained. 

Clinical
collaborator of the project, Dr Lee Soo Chin from the National University
Cancer Institute, Singapore, said, “We are excited that this novel approach has
the potential for translation into a hospital setting as prior approaches for
growing cancer cells had low efficiency, required extensive periods for culture
establishment, or compromised quality of the cells due to pre-enrichment. This
device will provide a cost-effective and less-invasive means of routine
monitoring of disease progression. The CTCs can be collected at various time
points to determine which treatment would be most beneficial for the patient.”

The
NUS research team is currently testing the cancer cell-based assay on patient
derived breast cancer cells but will also extend this testing to other cancer
types such as lung cancer. The assay is being filed for patent and the team is
also looking into possible commercialisation upon successful execution of the
clinical tests.

The NUS team has published their work and research
paper in Nature Protocols in January 2018.

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